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Children Learning By Experience (1947)

Main image of Children Learning By Experience (1947)
35mm, 32 min, black & white
DirectorMargaret Thomson
Production CompanyRealist Film Unit
SponsorCentral Office of Information
SponsorMinistry of Information
ProducerJohn Taylor

Narrator: Bruce Belfrage

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An observational study of young children learning by experience, designed principally for teachers in training.

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New Zealand-born Margaret Thomson was an exception to the rule whereby most wartime woman documentary-makers gave up directing in the early postwar period. Having begun in the 1930s, she was still directing in 1970. But Children Learning By Experience remains her most significant film. Modest, timelessly charming thanks to its subject, it's a little-known landmark in the evolution of documentary style.

Cameraman Ron Craigen said of Thomson, "I could never quite understand her way of working... she had the idea we'll just turn the camera on and we'll see what happens". In 1947, basing an entire film around 'observation' was unusual (a contrast, for instance, with the Your Children... series, also produced by the Realist Film Unit). However, Thomson's partial anticipation of the later innovations of cinema verité and Direct Cinema is coincidental: her motives were essentially practical.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Education to make a single film (to be called Child Psychology), Thomson gathered enough material for two 30-minute productions. The second film, Children Growing Up with Other People, deals with social development from birth through adolescence, while this one covers early childhood relationships with the tactile world, taking a respectively progressive and liberal stance: "adults should respect children as young people with interests of their own".

Though distribution was unrestricted, the film's primary target group was trainee teachers entering their postwar profession with scant understanding of children, having been denied close contact with them while away at war. Both films are broken into sections, which trainers were encouraged to screen separately, interspersed with group discussion. Thomson believed viewers would gain better understanding from relatively unmediated access to the subject - hence her preference for camera observation of large unstaged activity filmed in schools and other locations around London.

A familiarly stolid narrator introduces sequences, but thereafter is used sparingly, in careful interplay with the images. That both films were shot silent was standard practice, but is particularly conspicuous here in the absence of music or added 'ambient' sound. Thomson happily leaves action altogether silent for long stretches when the narrator isn't speaking, encouraging attentive viewers to observe infant behaviour closely. However, both the Children films end with short scenes shot with synchronised sound, in this case a disarming epilogue revisiting the opening scene. The first time round its children were 'seen but not heard'; now, their gorgeously broad cockney accents leap from the projector's speakers.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
Complete film (29:25)
Thomson, Margaret (1910-2005)